Presbyterian Church schools occupy a distinctive yet contradictory place in the educational history of New Zealand. Twelve schools nationwide have an historic association with the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand. None of the schools is owned by the Presbyterian Church, but each of them identifies with the Presbyterian Church in some shape or form by virtue of their foundation, history and heritage. For some of those schools, the Presbyterian link is tenuous, little more than an historical footnote; for others it is highly visible, not just in their promotional material, but also in terms of Presbyterian representation on their governance boards and an active relationship with their regional presbytery.

Six schools are independent: St Kentigern College (and its associated schools) and St Cuthbert’s College in Auckland, Scots College and Queen Margaret College in Wellington, and St Andrew’s College and Rangi Ruru Girls’ School in Christchurch. The other six schools are state-integrated: Iona College and Lindisfarne College in Hastings, Solway College in Masterton, St Oran’s College in Wellington, and Columba College and John McGlashan College in Dunedin.

A thirteenth school, Turakina Māori Girls’ College in Marton, closed in 2016.

A Presbyterian Church Schools’ Resource Office was established in 2011 to “strengthen the relationship between the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand and those church schools which are affiliated to and associated with it” (Presbyterian Church Schools’ Resource Office, n.d., para. 1). Although each school is autonomous and has its own distinct history, the one thing that all the schools allegedly share is “the special character of a Christian ethos within the Presbyterian/Reformed tradition” (Presbyterian Church Schools’ Resource Office, n.d., para. 2).

What does the “special character of a Christian ethos within the Presbyterian/Reformed tradition” actually mean? That question is the primary focus of this article. It holds both academic and personal interest for the author, whose longstanding association with the Presbyterian Church school network includes periods of service on three governance boards (St Kentigern, Scots and Columba), and responsibility for the establishment of the Presbyterian Church Schools Resource Office.

In its consideration of the special character of Presbyterian Church schools, this paper will offer a critical reflection of the history of the Presbyterian Church schools and what the schools themselves say about their special character on their websites.

Several observations are worth making at the outset. There are no official statements or mandated curricula by the Presbyterian Church on special character, Christian education, or religious studies. Presbyterian Church schools are not united under a common structure, purpose or mission statement. Their network is a loose affiliation, leaving each school free to develop in its own way and to interpret its special character as it sees fit. There are no requirements to appoint Presbyterians to key governance, leadership and pastoral positions of Board Chair, Principal and Chaplain. The combined effect of these absences is that Presbyterian Church schools lack a strong identity. Compared with independent and integrated schools in other faith-based traditions ranging from Roman Catholic to evangelical Christian to Muslim, the Presbyterian identity in the education sector is not always obvious.

Scottish Presbyterianism and the Inculcation of a “Democratic Intellect”

The word Presbyterian is a derivative of a Greek word presbyteros, which is found in the New Testament section of the Bible. Its most common English translation is “elder”. Presbyterianism refers to a form of church government, namely a church ruled or governed by elders, not by clergy. Like other Presbyterian churches around the world, the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand traces its origin back to the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation in Europe.

The Scottish Reformation was the process by which Scotland broke with the Roman Catholic Church and established a national church, the Church of Scotland, built on Presbyterian ideals. In many respects, it was a movement of ordinary people committed to the theological principle of the priesthood of all believers. Clergy were still deemed important in Scottish Presbyterianism, but they were known for their teaching and pastoral functions, not for the titles they held or the power they wielded. The act of public worship, including the reading of Scripture, was no longer in Latin, but in the vernacular of the people. The locus of piety shifted from the church to the home, where strict sabbath observance, family worship and daily Bible readings were encouraged.

The social and religious changes brought about by the Reformation necessitated a major reform of education. Having a school in every parish was one of the distinguishing aims of the Scottish Reformation. Another was a reform of higher education in the form of universities. Scottish academic George Davie (1961) coined the phrase “democratic intellect” to describe the egalitarian character of Scotland’s intellectual identity forged during this time. It is an apt description.

From the outset, Bible knowledge and catechetical instruction formed part of the basic educational diet in the Scottish parish school system. The zenith of this model of education was reached with the production of the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Shorter and Longer Catechisms in the mid-seventeenth century. Those confessional standards of doctrinal orthodoxy, drafted in 1646, were a product of Scottish Calvinist and English Puritan collaboration. Calvinists and Puritans shared many doctrinal beliefs, including on the sovereignty of God, the authority of the Bible, and the doctrines of election and predestination. They also shared a concern for disciplined godly living, including strict sabbath observance, family worship, and a strong work ethic.

Under the Westminster model of catechetical instruction, academic freedom was not an end in itself. It served a higher purpose of forming godly character. Initially, this did not constitute a problem, as few people were inclined to question Calvinist orthodoxy. But with the rise of science, the steady accumulation of knowledge, and strengthened confidence in the power of human reason, there emerged a new spirit of inquiry that would no longer be constrained by claims of divine revelation, biblical authority or doctrinal orthodoxy. By the middle of the eighteenth century the Scottish Enlightenment was firmly in sway.

The Enlightenment’s impact on the Church of Scotland was significant. Whilst the Church had always been a strong advocate of a broad and liberal education, the Enlightenment revealed sharp differences of opinion over what such an education comprised and what its limits might be. Tensions grew between Evangelicals and Moderates. Evangelicals upheld the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Calvinist orthodoxy it represented, while Moderates insisted that the right of private judgement and the privilege of inquiring after truth took precedence over all else. For them, the age of the Enlightenment demanded fresh thinking on ethics, virtue, and benevolence, not a mere reiteration of old forms of Calvinist doctrine and piety (Brekke, 2010, p. 84).

Tensions between the two groups were evident in the number of Moderate churchmen (mainly clergy and theological professors) that were accused of heresy by their Evangelical counterparts and placed on trial before ecclesiastical courts in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In 1843, in what became known as the Great Disruption, about 450 Evangelical ministers in the Church of Scotland broke away to form the Free Church of Scotland. Although the main conflict was over whether clerical appointments ought to be controlled by the Church or by the State, the schism also reinforced a growing theological divide between Evangelicals and Moderates.

Southern Presbyterianism’s Commitment to a “Broad and Liberal Education” for All

In 1848, just five years after the Great Disruption in Scotland, Dunedin was founded as a Free Church colony by the Lay Association of the Free Church of Scotland in collaboration with the New Zealand Company. Its two most prominent founding settlers, the inaugural minister of First Church of Otago, the Rev Thomas Burns, and businessman William Cargill, arrived with a vision of creating a new godly society, a “New Edinburgh”, a “Geneva of the Antipodes”. Although their attempts to implement their vision were thwarted, not least because the migrant community in Dunedin proved to be more diverse in thought, practice and church allegiance than they had bargained for, their vision of a Christian society remained.

Education was a key component of this vision (McClean, 2004, p. 26). The first meeting of Dunedin Presbytery committed itself to establishing a “broad and liberal” education system, the term “liberal” meaning a grounding in the Classics, mathematics, the mental and physical sciences, and languages (Matheson, n.d. 3).

The Lay Association and the New Zealand Company resolved to assign one-eighth of the proceeds of each land sale to religious and educational uses (Matheson, 1990, p. 25). The Rev Burns, and a prominent Presbyterian businessman and politician, James Macandrew, persuaded the Otago Provincial Council to set aside a land endowment for an institute of higher education, which led to the establishment of New Zealand’s first University, the University of Otago, in 1869. The Presbyterian Church’s Synod of Otago and Southland was heavily invested in the enterprise, financing a professorial chair of mental and moral philosophy, and later financing a second chair in English Literature, Political Economy and Constitutional History.

The establishment of these academic chairs represented the determination of southern Presbyterians to perpetuate a Scottish intellectual tradition that regarded a broad and liberal education as an essential component in the cultivation of personal character and civic virtue. As in Scotland, though, this was not without tension and controversy. When Professor William Salmond, who had been appointed to the University’s Chair of Mental and Moral Philosophy in 1886, argued for a freer interpretation of the Westminster Confession of Faith and railed against the “intellectual terrorism” of classical Calvinism, the Presbytery denounced his views as heretical (Matheson, n.d. Te Ara).

If First Church of Otago under the leadership of the Rev Thomas Burns had become a bastion of Calvinist orthodoxy, Knox Church (founded in 1860) under the leadership of the Rev Dr Donald Stuart aligned itself to a broader theological tradition (Morgan, 2004, p. 45; Olssen, 1984, p. 75). Knox Church enjoyed close links to the University which geographically was on its doorstep. Dr Stuart dedicated a good deal of his time to the development of secondary and university education in Dunedin, serving as Chairman of the Otago Boys’ and Girls’ Schools Board from 1878 to 1894, and serving as Vice-Chancellor of the University between 1871 and 1879, and Chancellor from 1879. During his tenure the University grew substantially, adding schools of mines, medicine and law to its original core of arts and science subjects.

Southern Presbyterians played a significant role not just in the establishment of New Zealand’s first university, but also in the promotion of education for girls. Following the establishment of Otago Boys’ High School in 1863, Presbyterian women, led by Learmonth Dalrymple, campaigned vigorously for the establishment of an equivalent high school for girls. Their efforts were rewarded when the first public girls’ high school in the southern hemisphere, Otago Girls’ High School, was opened in 1871.

Moreover, through Dalrymple’s advocacy the University of Otago became the first University in Australasia to admit women. The University’s first female graduate, Caroline Freeman, pursued a distinguished career in education, establishing two girls’ colleges named Girton College, one in Dunedin and the other in Christchurch (Page, n.d. Te Ara).

A foundation pupil of Dunedin’s Girton College, Frances Ross, who went on to graduate from the University of Otago with a BA in 1890 and an MA in 1900, succeeded Caroline Freeman as principal. When Girton College closed in 1914, and the Presbytery of Dunedin established Columba College, a secondary boarding school for girls, in its stead, Frances Ross was appointed Columba’s first principal (Ross, n.d., Te Ara).

Presbyterian Influences on the Development of Secular Education in New Zealand and the Establishment of Presbyterian Church Schools

The establishment of Columba College in Dunedin in 1915 was preceded by that of Iona College in Hastings in 1914. The founding principal of Iona, Isabel Fraser, was another Otago graduate, having been awarded an MA in 1889. Like her fellow Otago alumni Caroline Freeman and Frances Ross, Isabel Fraser was a staunch Presbyterian who devoted her long teaching career to advancing the education of girls in this country (Payne, n.d., Te Ara).

Columba College and Iona College were the first of eight Presbyterian schools established in the years 1914 to 1919. The others were St Cuthbert’s College in Auckland (1915), Solway College in Masterton (1916), Scots College in Wellington (1916), St Andrew’s College in Christchurch (1917), John McGlashan College in Dunedin (1918), and Queen Margaret College in Wellington (1919).

To understand why eight Presbyterian schools were established between 1914 and 1919, we need to go back to the 1877 Education Act, which established free, compulsory and secular education for all Pākehā New Zealand children. The Act sought to provide a uniform education across the country. Prior to its enactment school education was in the hands of provincial councils. Education was not a publicly funded good for the benefit of all, but rather a privilege for those who could afford it. As in the British education system, it was generally accepted that churches would play a leading role in the provision of education, based on the belief that “the acquisition of knowledge and inculcation of morality were inseparable” (Breward, 1967, p. 1).

However, ecclesiastical divisions imported from Europe meant that the churches’ role in providing religious education and moral instruction descended into sectarian rivalry. In light of this acrimonious backdrop, the 1877 Education Act was widely welcomed as a “practical solution to educational tensions caused by denominationalism” (Breward, 1967, p. 18).

In 1877, the Province of Otago had the most developed educational system in the country, reflecting the convictions and priorities of its Scottish settlers. The norms of Otago schooling became incorporated by successive governments and Ministers of Education into the evolving state system. Influential architects of the evolving state school system had strong church links, particularly Congregational and Presbyterian. The first Inspector General of schools, appointed in 1878, was the Rev. William Habens, Minister of Trinity Congregational Church in Christchurch (McKenzie, n.d., Te Ara).

A significant influence on New Zealand state schooling was the work of Peter Fraser, an active Presbyterian, who became Minister of Education on the election of the Labour Government in 1935. Consistent with his Scottish Presbyterian heritage, Fraser had a strong belief in the power of education to effect social change. He found a strong ally in Clarence Edward Beeby, the government’s Assistant Director in Education and a renowned educationalist. In 1939, before becoming Prime Minister on the death of Michael Joseph Savage Fraser articulated his (and the Government’s) belief, which came to be referred to as the Fraser-Beeby statement, that “every person, whatever his level of academic ability, whether he be rich or poor, whether he live in town or country, has a right, as a citizen, to a free education of the kind for which he is best fitted, and the fullest extent of his powers” (McDonald, 2002).

This vision was the key reference point for the work of a consultative committee on the post-primary school curriculum set up in 1942 under the chairmanship of William Thomas, another active Presbyterian and Rector of Timaru Boys High School. The committee’s report, widely known as the Thomas Report, helped to shape secondary education in New Zealand for the next forty years (Lee & Lee, 2016).

The 1877 Education Act received strong support at the time from the Presbyterian Church’s General Assembly, which saw an opportunity for parish churches to offer voluntary religious instruction outside school hours and, through Sunday Schools, to create a system of religious education for primary school aged children that would complement the state school system.

The General Assembly’s optimism was short-lived. By the 1890s it was clear that churches did not have the capacity to achieve what had been envisaged. Sunday Schools were grossly under-resourced in terms of both content and delivery. The same was true of other denominational schools. In 1893, Bishop Julius, the Anglican Bishop of Christchurch, opined that many Anglican Sunday Schools “were doing more harm than good” (Breward, 1967, p. 23). He joined a growing chorus of prominent Anglicans and Presbyterians advocating publicly for the inclusion of Bible instruction in state primary schools.

Chief among the advocates for the fledgling Bible in Schools movement was the Very Rev Dr James Gibb, Minister at the high-profile St John’s Presbyterian Church in Wellington and a former Moderator of the Presbyterian Church’s General Assembly. Dr Gibb maintained that a righteous nation and a strong church were essential if the rampant secularism of New Zealand society was to be countered (Breward, 1967, p. 63). He played a leading role in the establishment of the Bible in Schools League, which advocated for daily 30-min Bible lessons in state schools and called for a national referendum on the matter (Breward, 1967, p. 50).

Although the Bible in Schools movement had some vocal advocates like Gibb, it was not a unified movement. It encountered stiff resistance from the Catholic Church, which opposed the secular model education enshrined in the 1877 Education Act, favouring instead a model of state aid for denominational schools. In 1913, a Catholic Federation was created to oppose the Bible in Schools League (Jackson, 2020). A referendum bill, proposed by the Bible in Schools League in 1913, failed to win the support of the parliamentary Education Committee and languished. Any thoughts that may have been harboured toward reintroducing it were thwarted by the advent of war in 1914.

The failure of the Bible in Schools League to persuade the government to hold a national referendum on Bible instruction in state schools prompted a resurgence of interest in church schools. As Laurie Barber commented, “the low point in Bible in schools fortune was the high point in Presbyterian church school foundation” (Barber, 1990, p. 87). Having resigned from the Bible in Schools League, Dr Gibb turned his attention to helping found first Scots College and then Queen Margaret College, the aim of which he said should be to “build up a strong Christian character on a broad religious basis and to train for useful and loyal citizenship and service” (Breward, 1967, p. 133).

Not all advocates of Presbyterian Church schools shared Gibb’s emphasis on broad religion and citizenship. One of the more outspoken campaigners for Presbyterian Church schools, the Rev Alexander Whyte, had a more evangelistic agenda. He hoped the schools would provide opportunities for winning people to faith and for deepening the faith of those already committed (Breward, 1967, p. 134). He saw an opportunity to extend daily Bible instruction beyond primary school level to secondary school level, and to include catechetical instruction and lessons on the history and doctrines of the Church (Breward, 1967, p. 132). Whyte’s influence was considerable. He played a significant role in galvanising support for the establishment of Iona College, Columba College and John McGlashan College.

Despite Whyte’s early influence, Presbyterian Church schools generally chose to embody a model of enlightened Protestantism more in keeping with Gibb’s vision and defined by historian John Stenhouse in terms of being “politically liberal, religiously tolerant, socially inclusive, scientifically-oriented and intellectually progressive” (Stenhouse, 2004, p. 55).

The development of the first Presbyterian Church schools was not without its challenges. Although the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church gave its blessing to the establishment of church schools, it was unable to offer any material support. Their viability relied entirely on the efforts of local enthusiasts and benefactors. Presbyterian clergy like Gibb and Whyte articulated a vision, but without generous support from local benefactors the vision would have died. Regional presbyteries provided oversight of schools in their area but had no funds of their own to contribute. Presbytery members appointed to school boards did not necessarily understand education or the practical realities of running an educational institution. This created tensions between those responsible for governance and those appointed to run the schools, and in some cases between the schools and their presbyteries. Some of the schools struggled financially in those early years, and only survived because of the sacrificial efforts of dedicated principals and staff, some of whom were paid less than their state school counterparts. Isobel Fraser, the first headmistress of Iona, served for five years without a salary to help the school survive its infancy (Breward, 1967, p. 136).

When Dr Gibb laid the foundation stone of Scots College in 1916, he boldly predicted that the movement for church schools would go on until they were found through the length and breadth of the land (Breward, 1967, p. 134). The reality was somewhat different. As Ian Breward comments, “many sincere Christians valued the public system and were not disposed to transfer their children to church schools. Others who might have, could not afford it and the churches themselves had no funds to assist either the foundation or maintenance of church schools” (Breward, 1967, pp. 134–135).

The relationship between the schools and the Presbyterian Church was problematic from the outset. The establishment of the schools took place in an ad hoc manner. It lacked a national strategy and unifying vision and the sorts of resources and planning necessary for their implementation. Regional presbyteries struggled to provide schools with adequate levels of expertise and support. Presbytery appointees on school boards, including clergy, were often ill-suited to the role, which resulted in some boards making moves to either reduce Presbytery representation or control Presbytery appointments. Many Presbyterians, including clergy, were ambivalent toward church schools, feeling that the exclusionary effect of fee-charging practices failed to uphold an egalitarian ideal that lay at the heart of a truly Presbyterian educational philosophy.

Presbyterian Church Schools Coming to Terms with Calvinism’s Complex Legacy

The Westminster Confession of Faith holds the status of being a subordinate standard of the Presbyterian Church. A subordinate standard sets out key elements of doctrinal belief and is subordinate to the Bible as the supreme standard. When Presbyterian Elders and Ministers are ordained, they are required to sign a Formula that states among other things that they believe the fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith contained in Westminster Confession of Faith and other subordinate standards of the Church. This poses a major problem for the many clergy and elders who do not subscribe to the Westminster Confession’s seventeenth-century Calvinist theology.

The Presbyterian Church has sought to resolve this problem in several ways over the years. In 1901, when the Presbyterian Church of Otago and Southland and the Presbyterian Church of New Zealand united as one Church and signed an Agreement for Union, they agreed to adopt the “Westminster Confession of Faith and Larger and Shorter Catechisms, as interpreted by the Declaratory Act, as Subordinate Standards” (Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand, n.d., Agreement for Union, Article II). The Declaratory Act referred to in that statement was an Act passed by the Free Church of Scotland back in 1892. Significantly, the Act included a declaration that “this Church disclaims intolerant or persecuting principles, and does not consider her office-bearers, in subscribing the Confession, committed to any principles inconsistent with liberty of conscience and the right of private judgement” (Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand, n.d., Declaratory Act (1892-3), para.5).

As well as relying on the Declaratory Act, Ministers and Elders can also rely on a proviso in the ordination Formula that allows for “liberty of conviction” on such points as do not enter into the fundamental doctrines of Christian faith contained in the Scriptures and subordinate standards.”

These references to “liberty of conscience” (Declaratory Act) and “liberty of conviction” (Ordination Formula) effectively allow the Presbyterian Church to have its cake and eat it too. Officially, the Church subscribes to the Westminster Confession and the seventeenth-century Calvinist doctrine contained therein. Practically, though, its ordained office bearers hold a wide range of theological beliefs. The provisos have allowed liberalism and intellectual rigour to flourish in the Presbyterian Church and not be constrained by the rigid doctrinal framework of the Westminster Confession.

However, the provisos have also created tensions between conservative and liberal wings of the Church. Occasionally, those tensions have erupted into sharp conflict, threatening the peace and unity of the Church. In 1967, the Principal of the Presbyterian Church’s Theological Hall, Professor Lloyd Geering, was tried for heresy after questioning the literal truth of the resurrection and denying the immortality of the human soul. Although the Church’s General Assembly acquitted him of the charge, the trial exposed a deep division between conservative and liberal wings of the church.

In the 1980s and ensuing decades, the division erupted into acrimonious debate over issues of sexuality. Conservative positions on the issues were championed by Presbyterian AFFIRM (an acronym for Action, Faith, Fellowship, Intercession, Renewal, and Mission), a conservative evangelical network formed in 1993 (Presbyterian Affirm, n.d. Pre-GA18 Newsletter). In 2003, some conservative church leaders who despaired over the influence of theological liberalism in the Presbyterian Church, decided to split away to form a rival denomination called Grace Presbyterian Church, which describes itself as “Presbyterian in government, Calvinist in theology, and evangelical in spirit” (Grace Presbyterian Church, n.d., Home, para. 4). A year later, in 2004, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church ruled that people in de facto or gay relationships could not be ordained as Ministers, thus settling the decades-long debate and confirming the power that Presbyterian AFFIRM and the conservative wing of the church now wielded in the courts of the Church. In 2014, following the legalisation in New Zealand of same-sex marriages in 2013, the General Assembly banned Presbyterian ministers from performing same-sex marriages.

Meanwhile, in 2010, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand adopted a contemporary, indigenous confession of faith known as Kupu Whakapono as a second subordinate standard to sit alongside the Westminster Confession (Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand, n.d. Kupu Whakapono). In so doing, the Presbyterian Church effectively said that the Reformed theological tradition of which it is part is broader and more diverse than that which is represented in the Westminster Confession. Representatives of Presbyterian AFFIRM served on the committee that drafted Kupu Whakapono, thus ensuring that this contemporary expression of orthodox belief would remain acceptable to the conservative wing of the Church and that it would sit alongside the Westminster Confession of Faith as a subordinate standard, not replace it.

Because Presbyterian Church schools have their own autonomy, they are not bound by the rulings of the Presbyterian Church’s General Assembly. But they do have to deal with the fallout of those rulings in terms of public perceptions of the Presbyterian Church and what it stands for. To what extent do church schools want to be associated with a Church that issues public pronouncements on issues of doctrine and sexuality that are so clearly out of touch with wider society? The schools are conscious of operating in a secular and religiously pluralist society and of the potential for a conservative and acrimonious Presbyterian brand to undermine their commitment to provide an educational environment that is welcoming of people of all faiths and none.

Another perception issue here is that Calvinism as a cultural force, not just a religious phenomenon, has been given a bad press over the years (Matheson, 2014, p. 171). It has been the subject of much negative cultural stereotype and caricature. New Zealand poet James K. Baxter, who was descended from Scottish Presbyterians on both sides of his family, directed some of his most vitriolic prose at Calvinism. In 1967, he famously declared that New Zealand’s seemingly secular society “carries like strychnine in its bones a strong unconscious residue of the doctrines and ethics of Calvinism” (Baxter, 1967, pp. 91–2). In 1972, he described the Calvinist influence on New Zealand literature and society as “that austere, anti-aesthetic angel” (Baxter, 1972, p. 22).

Baxter was not the only one. According to John Stenhouse (Stenhouse, 2014), by the middle decades of the twentieth century an anti-Puritan, anti-Calvinist sentiment had effectively become established as a mark of literary orthodoxy, featuring prominently in the writings of some of this country’s most revered poets and historians, including Baxter, Frank Sargeson, Bill Pearson, Robert Chapman, Alan Curnow, and Keith Sinclair. For such authors, the words Puritanism and Calvinism were used interchangeably to refer to repressive, pleasure-hating, guilt-inducing conformity to conservative social norms and sexual mores that were detrimental to human flourishing at both individual and societal levels.

This anti-Calvinist, anti-Puritan cultural backdrop provides additional context for the general reluctance of most Presbyterian Church schools to promote their denominational heritage. Presbyterianism’s association with Calvinism and Puritanism means it is tarred by the same anti-Calvinist, anti-Puritan brush.

It is instructive to note that six of the twelve schools today, by virtue of their names, have identified not with Calvinism but with the Celtic tradition of Christian faith and spirituality. St Cuthbert’s, St Kentigern, St Oran and Columba are named after Celtic monks and evangelists; Iona and Lindisfarne are named after island centres of monastic life and Celtic Christianity off the coasts of west Scotland and north-east England.

Whereas Calvinist Christianity focused on sin and the atonement for sin won for the elect in Christ, Celtic Christianity focused on the presence of Christ in all things. Whereas Calvinist Christianity assumed a fallenness of human character that needed to be restrained and overcome, Celtic Christianity assumed an innate goodness that needed to be cultivated. Whereas Calvinist Christianity was suspicious of artistic endeavour, Celtic Christianity embraced it. Whereas Calvinist Christianity was doctrinaire, Celtic Christianity was poetic, leaning toward the mystical.

Online Content Analysis of Presbyterian Church Schools’ Websites

Given the problematic nature of this negative association between Presbyterianism and Calvinism and Puritanism, how do the schools acknowledge their Presbyterian roots and promote their special character?

In July 2023, I sought an answer to that question through a process of Online Content Analysis. This involved analysing information obtained from the websites of the twelve current Presbyterian Church schools. The information was obtained through two interrelated approaches. The first approach involved doing a word search on each website for “Presbyterian” to see how often it appeared, in what contexts it was being used, and how it was being described. The second approach involved visiting the special character, mission, history, and heritage pages of each website to see how each school described its special or Christian character and to what extent the school’s Presbyterian/Reformed heritage featured in that description.

A website is an important tool in a school’s marketing tool kit. What is presented there is how the school wants itself to be seen by the general public, including families of potential students. This is especially so in regard to a school’s special character, which is often promoted as a point of difference. As such, it is worthy of analysis without pretending to be an evaluation of each school’s special character. An evaluation would involve much more, including reading ERO reports and special character review documents, viewing religious education curricula, and interviewing principals, chaplains and religious education staff. Such an evaluation is beyond the scope of this research exercise.

My Online Content Analysis of the schools’ websites was conducted in July 2023. It yielded the following results: The websites of all twelve schools acknowledged their Presbyterian roots in some shape or form. For most, the roots were acknowledged in website sections on their school’s heritage or history. For some it was in statements on special character and/or values. Several schools emphasised the inclusiveness of their religious heritage. For example, the Queen Margaret College website talked about the flame of learning being lit within an “inclusive Christian environment” (Queen Margaret College, n.d., para. 1). The Solway College website stated that its affiliation with the Presbyterian Church is “non-sectarian and inclusive” (Solway College, n.d., 1st bullet point). The Rangi Ruru website said that its “founding, whilst sourced out of a Christian commitment, welcomes, respects, and appreciates the richness and diversity brought to us by people of all faiths, beliefs and those of no faith” (Rangi Ruru, n.d., para. 1).

Most of the schools linked their special character to a set of values. Sometimes these were called core values, sometimes Christian values. St Cuthbert’s said that it follows “Christian values in the Presbyterian tradition” (St Cuthbert’s, n.d., Our Values, 5th bullet point) without specifying what those values are. Likewise, St Oran’s, which said it “promotes holistic educational excellence underpinned by Christian values” (St. Oran’s, n.d., About, para. 3). St Kentigern said that its “core values of Respect, Integrity, Service, Excellence and Love create the foundations for students to grow into thoughtful, well principled and caring individuals” (St. Kentigern, n.d., Our Heritage, para. 5). Lindisfarne drew attention to a feature window in its chapel called the Good Man window, which it said depicts “the school’s core values of Respect, Integrity, Courage, Kindness, Service and Humility.” (Lindisfarne, n.d., The Good Man Window, para. 2). Rangi Ruru deployed the acronym RANGI to describe its core values: Respect – Whakaute; Aroha; ENthusiasm & Endeavour – Nanaiore/Kipakipa; Generosity of Spirit –Manaakitanga; and Integrity – Mana (Rangi Ruru, n.d., para. 2). Columba too used an acronym (GRACE) to describe its values: Good Discipline, Respect, Aroha, Citizenship, Excellence (Columba College, n.d., Mission & Values, para. 3).

Across the twelve schools’ websites, approximately twenty-five values were used to describe special character. The most commonly mentioned values were respect (mentioned 8 times), caring/kindness/compassion (6), excellence (5), integrity (4), service (4), and love/aroha (4). A values-based approach to education seemed to be important for all the schools.

The Problematic Nature of Values

A values-based approach to education is not something that sets independent and faith-based schools apart from state schools. The New Zealand Curriculum, which communicates Ministry of Education policy on teaching and learning in English-medium New Zealand schools, has a section titled, “Values to be encouraged, modelled, and explored” (Ministry of Education, 2015, p. 10), in which it promotes values on the basis that they “express what is important or desirable” on both personal and institutional levels. Seven values are identified as having “widespread support” and the capacity to enable us “to live together and thrive” as a society.

Three of the cited values pertain to individual character and achievement: the pursuit of excellence, innovation/critical thinking, and integrity. The other four values pertain to societal outcomes: diversity, equity, participation, and ecological sustainability.

A similar approach is taken in the document Te Marautanga o Aotearoa, which communicates Ministry of Education policy on teaching and learning in Māori-medium schools. The main difference between the two documents is that Te Marautanga o Aotearoa includes an emphasis on learners growing in their knowledge of “traditional Māori values”, which involves understanding the “values of their whānau, hapū and iwi, enabling access to the Māori world”, and knowing their “identity and origins”, “genealogy and whakapapa links”.

When we compare the most commonly cited values on the Presbyterian Church schools’ websites with the values cited in The New Zealand Curriculum, we find a high degree of overlap and consistency. Neither set of values would look out of place in the other sector. Two values—excellence and integrity—appear in both lists. We may conclude from this brief comparison that there is nothing distinctively Christian about the Presbyterian Church schools’ values. They are generic. So-called Christian values are indistinguishable from secular values.

In 2005, Massey University Professor Ivan Snook, presented a paper at an Australian National Values Education Forum on the New Zealand experience of values education. The paper he delivered in that forum formed the basis for a subsequent book chapter titled “Values Education in Context” (Snook, 2007). In his description and critique of values education in New Zealand, Snook raised two important issues: the contestable nature of values and the hidden curriculum.

On the contestable nature of values, Snook said that values programmes are fond of talking about values we all supposedly share, but the reality is that conflict, not consensus, marks the values domain. We might all agree on the importance of kindness and fairness, for example, but finding agreement on what kindness and fairness look like in particular situations may be exceedingly difficult as contrasting contexts and experiences create sharp differences of perspective.

So-called Christian values are equally contestable. This is evident on issues like abortion where Christian opinion is no less divided than societal opinion more generally. Pro-life and pro-choice camps are each able to appeal to Christian values in support of their respective positions. Neither side disputes the importance of values; they are just divided on which values they want to defend and how they interpret them.

On the hidden curriculum, Snook opined that the way a school is organised is a much more powerful indicator of a school’s values than what it says on paper or teachers say in class. Power relations in schools and the way these are handled, including the rules it expects its students to follow, constitute daily lessons in values, he said. Indeed, the culture of an educational institution comprises a complex array of values, the most influential of which may be implied rather than stated, subterranean rather than overt, schoolyard rather than classroom-based.

Christian values are problematic in another sense too. According to Māori academic Hirini Kaa (2018), when the Bible, Te Paipera Tapu, was introduced to Māori in the nineteenth century, they read it as Māori, not as Europeans, and what they saw in the sacred scriptures of the European missionaries was not a set of timeless European values but rather stories of an ancient people and their Atua intimately connected to their whakapapa, their tīpuna, their whenua, their awa, and their sacred maunga. They saw stories of oppression and liberation that prompted a critique of the rapidly changing and very dangerous environment that they were encountering. Prophetic and millenarian movements sprang up seeking the reinstatement of tino rangatiratanga—both in the form of the Kingdom of God and the full expression of mātauranga Māori. It could be argued, said Kaa, that every major Māori resistance movement of the nineteenth century found its foundation both in mātauranga-a-iwi and in Te Paipera Tapu.

What this account of Te Paipera Tapu taking root in Aotearoa New Zealand illustrates is the extent to which the Bible as story, not as a set of values, had a major impact on nineteenth century Māori identifying with the Christian faith and interpreting their experiences of injustice and oppression.

When Christianity is reduced to a set of values, the richness of the story is lost, and even the story itself is put at risk. American theologian Robert Jenson argued that very point in an article titled, “How the world lost its story” (Jenson, 2010). Jenson said that when western history is viewed through a narrative lens it can be divided into three epochs. In the first epoch known as pre-modernity, there was a sense of living in a narratable world with God as the storyteller. It was God’s world. In the second epoch known as modernity, God as storyteller was made redundant, but there was still a sense of living in a narratable world, albeit a narrative with humankind at the centre and human progress as the dominant storyline. It was our world. The third epoch, which we now live in, is known as post-modernity. Modernity has collapsed, and the narrative that underpinned modernity has collapsed with it. As we face a multiplicity of global crises, including the climate crisis, we have lost all sense of living in a narratable world. There is neither a universal story nor a universal storyteller.

Building on Jenson’s argument, we might say that when a culture no longer has a narrative foundation for talking about things like human purpose, character, and meaning, then perhaps values is all we have left.

But values detached from their narrative base, floating free as it were, become vague and vacuous. In a world that has lost its story, Jenson suggests, the challenge for the Church is not to talk about Christian values but rather to recover a sense of its story, to provide and become a narratable world in which life can be lived with purpose and coherence. For Jenson, that narratable world is constituted in the liturgy or the act of Christian worship, with the Eucharist at its centre. For church schools, that narratable world is perhaps constituted in Chapel worship, religious education programmes, pastoral care, and community service. If that is the case, then their investment in chaplaincy, pastoral care, and community service is perhaps the single most effective strategy that they have in the development of their special character.


In this paper I have noted the significant contribution the Presbyterian Church has made to the history of education in New Zealand, most notably in the nineteenth century through the prominent role that it played in the foundation of the University of Otago and in its the advocacy of equal educational opportunities for girls and women. I noted that the Presbyterian commitment to a universally accessible broad and liberal education had its origins in the Scottish Reformation and Scottish Enlightenment. I also noted differences in opinion as to what that broad and liberal education should comprise. I identified tensions in the Presbyterian Church between Evangelicals and Moderates, between Calvinist orthodoxy and theological liberalism, and between Calvinist and Celtic expressions of Christianity.

I have argued that the move to create eight Presbyterian Church schools between 1914 and 1919 was ad hoc rather than planned. There was no coherent educational philosophy behind it, no nationwide strategy, no coherent plan. Motives for founding the schools were mixed. At neither national nor regional levels did the Presbyterian Church commit financial resources to support the establishment of the schools that identified with its name. One thing the Presbyterian Church was able to do at a regional or presbytery level was to provide representatives for the schools’ governance boards, but even this proved problematic when many of those representatives failed to display the sorts of skills and understanding that governance of educational institutions required.

Although the Presbyterian Church is a broad church comprising multiple theological traditions and expressions of faith, it is Calvinism with which it has often been associated in the public eye, but Calvinism’s system of doctrine and expression of piety is poorly suited to modern educational institutions operating in a secular society and seeking to appeal to people beyond the reaches of the Presbyterian Church. It is instructive that of the twelve Presbyterian Church schools that exist today, six of them bear names that identify with the Celtic tradition of Christian faith and spirituality, and none of the other six schools have names that identify with Calvinism. Traditional Calvinist orthodoxy and forms of catechetical instruction are far removed from the epistemologies and educational pedagogies that characterise modern educational institutions.

What, then, is meant by the Presbyterian Church Schools’ office declaration that Presbyterian Church schools share a “special character of a Christian ethos within the Presbyterian/Reformed tradition”? How do the schools themselves understand that statement in light of their own history?

In response to that question, I conducted a form of Online Content Analysis in regard to the Presbyterian Church schools’ websites. I noted that whilst all the Presbyterian Church schools acknowledge their Presbyterian heritage in some shape or form, it is not given a strong emphasis. For most it is an historical footnote. The overwhelming trend is for the Christian ethos to be described in terms of values which are portrayed as being central to Christianity. The analysis showed the prevalence of values-talk across all the schools.

However, in this paper I have argued that values talk is problematic. As much as Presbyterian Church schools might talk about the distinctiveness of their Christian values, a comparison of the values cited on their websites and values promoted in the Ministry of Education’s New Zealand Curriculum revealed a striking similarity.

Although values are often assumed to be timeless and universal, and therefore inclusive of people of all faiths and none, the truth is that they are subjective and contestable, a point well made by educationalist Ivan Snook. I further contend that the Bible, which the Presbyterian Church holds to be its supreme standard, tells a multi-layered narrative of divine-human encounters that cannot be reduced to a set of values. Citing Māori academic Hirini Kaa, I note that when nineteenth-century Māori encountered Christianity and read the Christian scriptures, Te Paipera Tapu, they did so as Māori, not as Europeans. The thing that spoke into their situation was not a set of respectable European values but rather raw biblical narratives of liberation and hope. Citing American theologian Robert Jenson, I conclude that values are for a world that has lost its story.

So where does that leave Presbyterian Church schools and their “special character of a Christian ethos within the Presbyterian/Reformed tradition”?

The schools are in a difficult situation. Organisationally, their links with the Presbyterian Church are tenuous, and it is not in their interests to stress a connection with a Presbyterian/Reformed tradition that is complex, controversial, and increasingly anachronistic. The fully independent, fee-paying schools also have to contend with the possibility that their perceived elitism on the grounds of affordability sets them at odds with a core Presbyterian egalitarian ideal.

I wonder if the Christian distinctiveness of church schools lies not in their values but in the story or stories with which Christianity identifies and which church schools choose to inhabit and enact in a multiplicity of ways—in Chapel, in religious education programmes, in pastoral care, and in community service—and in their understandings of the purpose of education, the nature of character development and what it means to be human.

I would further contend that if Presbyterian Church schools take this task seriously then they may find that theology, far from being an incidental discipline, will become integral to how their conversations are both framed and informed.